“Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell” — Walter Benjamin (qtd. in Brooks 22)
In Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks writes:
Perhaps it would be best to speak of the anticipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative, the master trope of its strange logic. We have no doubt foregone eternal narrative ends, and even traditional nineteenth-century ends are subject to self-conscious endgames, yet still we read in the spirit of confidence, and also a state of dependence, that what remains to be read will restructure the provisional readings of the already read (23).
Norwegian comics artist Jason’s Hey, Wait… certainly “restructures the provisional readings of the already read” : what initially appears as childhood nostalgia transforms into a more poignant loss, as Jason organizes Hey, Wait… around the death of Bjorn, the main character’s best friend. This death not only affects what comes after it–Jon’s loneliness, alcoholism and failure–but restructures what comes before it: our readerly identification with Jon’s childhood invokes our own memories, whose sweetness Bjorn’s death obliterates because his death is the death of childhood itself, and a reminder that nostalgia for youth is constituted by the horizon of death.
All the earmarks of a boy’s childhood in the 1970s appear in the first half as Jon and Bjorn tread the fine line between boredom and idyll. John draws pictures of Batman when his lessons get dull. He is attracted to a girl, Ingrid, but is deathly afraid of speaking to her. He and Bjorn talk about a guy who has “done it,” try to decide what to do on long summer days, and perform various pranks. And yet, Jason manages to avoid cliche by dislocating reality; this is a world in which humanoid dogs and birds are the main actors, where pairs of wooden stilts replace cars, and pterodactyls snatch kites from the air. This deviation from realism renders nostalgia familiar but strange: uncanny. This uncanniness extends to the figure of Death, who appears in the first half as a schoolyard bully and as a passing cyclist who waves at Jon. We don’t know that he is Death until we read the second part. He appears ragged and skull-like, but because we are already in this slightly distorted world, we don’t necessarily make the connection until his role becomes more obvious.
Hey, Wait… is one of a long line of non-superhero comics that reflects on its relationship to that genre. Bjorn’s death emerges in the gap between the superhero’s world and mundane reality; it results from Jon suggesting that they ought to create a Batman club. This club would require a test for membership: leaping up to and swinging from a branch above a cliff to prove one’s courage. Jon illustrates the test without difficulty. While Bjorn initially demurs, he screws up his courage for another day. Alas, he fails where Jon succeeds and falls to his death. Bjorn’s death also kills Batman and all that Batman represents for Jon and maybe for us; the escapism of that comic book world is no longer possible.
The second part jumps many years forward in Jon’s life. He lives on his own in an apartment. He has a child but appears to be separated, if not divorced, from his wife. Adulthood for him is all drudgery–his job is to drill holes in cubes–regret, and remorse. His adulthood betrays his childhood. In part one Bjorn and Jon spend a summer’s day discussing what they will do with their adult lives: “One thing’s for sure,” Bjorn notes, “I’m not gonna work in a factory or someplace boring like that.” “Nope,” Jon responds. For Jon, the transition from part one to part two is one from a world where everything seems possible to one where nothing seems possible–a world stripped of its Batmanness. The post-Batman world restructures the meaning of Jon’s innocent childhood doodles. We reinterpret our initial response to them as they become weighty portents of a future where they have no place.
If Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth is about how superheroes plague comics, about how we can’t get rid of them even though they do not serve any useful purpose, Hey, Wait… both implicates Batman in Bjorn’s death and mourns his passing as a kind of collateral damage. Batman becomes part of a memory that death converts from sweet to sublime–unthinkable and unrepresentable. The only way to indicate this sublimity is with the full page of six blacked-out panels that appear immediately after Bjorn makes his jump. In the second half of the book we see a corresponding page of white panels when Jon gets drunk. The braiding of the two pages establishes the text’s relationship to memory: first a blackout and then a whiteout. These two pages may be the most important in the book, yet there is “nothing” on either of them. The black panels indicate the end of a world. The white panels show the irony of that world’s continuance in memory and Jon’s inability to erase it except through dying himself: the final page shows him boarding a bus full of the dead.
While boarding that bus provides a form of closure for Jon, we readers of Hey, Wait… remain caught in a kind of limbo between the two halves of the book…as if we have been tricked. We thought we were getting one kind of story–a childhood idyll–but ended up with another–a story of adult misery. Our suspension gives the book’s title its full meaning. Jon utters the phrase as Bjorn leaps for the branch that ought to confer upon him membership in the Batman club. We can even imagine that the phrase itself causes Bjorn to miss the branch, as it interrupts and throws off his leap. But we keep saying “Hey, Wait…” to ourselves, to the book, and to life itself well after Bjorn has died, because “Hey, Wait…” is not simply a call for someone else to pause; it is a sign of missing something and then getting it–a joke that one doesn’t quite understand the punchline to starts to become clear.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1992.
Jason. Hey, Wait…. Ed and trans: Kim Thompson. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2001.